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Taliban warn of start of annual 'spring offensive' in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) ' The Taliban have warned they will officially start their annual "spring offensive" in Afghanistan on Thursday.
Wednesday's announcement comes hours after a brazen attack on a foreigners' housing compound in Kabul that killed seven people shortly after a surprise visit by President Barack Obama.
The offensive comes every year as the country's snows melt, making both travel and fighting easier. It normally leads to a surge of militant attacks throughout the country as the Taliban attempt to retake lost territory and intimidate the Afghan government.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) ' The Taliban struck back less than two hours after President Barack Obama left Afghanistan on Wednesday, targeting a foreigners' housing compound with a suicide car bomb and militants disguised as women in an assault that killed at least seven people.
It was the second major assault in Kabul in less than three weeks and highlighted the Taliban's continued ability to strike in the heavily guarded capital even when security had been tightened for Obama's visit and Wednesday's anniversary of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.
Obama arrived at Bagram Air Field late Tuesday, then traveled to Kabul by helicopter for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai in which they signed an agreement governing the U.S. presence after combat troops withdraw in 2014. Later, back at the base, he was surrounded by U.S. troops, shaking every hand. He then gave a speech broadcast to Americans back home, before ending his lightning visit just before 4:30 a.m.
The U.S. president, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, touted the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden a year ago Wednesday, noting that the operation was launched from a base in Afghanistan.
He also said that "the tide has turned" over the last three years.
"We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders," he said.
But the violence that erupted about 90 minutes after his departure was a stark reminder of the difficult task still ahead for Afghan troops as they work to secure their country after U.S. and other foreign troops end their combat mission following nearly a decade at war.
The deal signed with Karzai does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the U.S. to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan through 2024 for two specific purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaida.
The United States also promises to seek money from Congress every year to support Afghanistan.
The attack began with a suicide car bomb near the gate of the privately guarded compound, which sits off Jalalabad road ' one of the main thoroughfares out of the city, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said.
Kabul Deputy Police Chief Daoud Amin said those killed in the blast included four people in a station wagon that was driving past the area, a passer-by and a Nepalese security guard. He didn't have the identity of the seventh person killed. The Interior Ministry said 17 other people were wounded, most Afghan children on their way to school.
A local witness said a separate group of attackers disguised in burqas ' the head-to-toe robes worn by conservative Afghan women ' then tried to storm the compound.
"A vehicle stopped here and six people wearing burqas entered the alley carrying black bags in their hands. When they entered the alley, there was an explosion," said Abdul Manan.
Explosions and gunfire shook the city for hours as Afghan soldiers rushed to the scene and battled the attackers.
A Western official who had been briefed on the assault said the attackers had breached the perimeter defense, around the compound's parking areas, but had not gotten past a secondary security gate that protects the actual living areas. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The area appeared to have calmed down by about 10 a.m. NATO said all the attackers had been killed. It did not give a number, but the Taliban said it had deployed four fighters as it claimed responsibility for the attack.
The compound, which is known as Green Village, houses hundreds of international contractors, diplomats and aid workers in eastern Kabul. It also was the target of anti-foreigner protests following the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in February. At that time, violent protests raged outside, but the angry crowds did not breach the compound's defenses.
The compound's main gate was destroyed, with the wreckage of the suicide bomber's car sitting in front, and the road running past it was littered with shoes, books, school supplies and the bloody ID card of a student from a nearby school.
A young man who saw the explosion said the dead pedestrian was one of his fellow classmates.
"I was walking to school when I saw a very big explosion. A car exploded and flames went very high into the air," said 21-year-old Mohammad Wali. "Then I saw a body of one of my classmates lying on the street. I knew it was a suicide attack and ran away. I was so afraid."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack.
"This was a message to Obama that those are not real Afghans that are signing documents about this country," Mujahid said. "The real Afghan nation are those people that are not letting foreign invaders stay in this country or disrespect the dignity of our country."
He said the target of Wednesday's attack was a "foreign military base." A spokesman for the alliance, Capt. Justin Brockhoff, said no NATO bases came under attack.
The Green Village complex, with its towering blast walls and heavily armed security force, is very similar in appearance to NATO bases in the city. An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw a group of Afghan soldiers enter the compound, after which heavy shooting could be heard coming from inside.
Elsewhere, NATO said that two coalition service members were killed Wednesday in a bomb blast in the country's east. The alliance did not give the nationality of the troops or provide other details.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.